Spotlight on Sophie Heywood

Welcome to another edition of Historians Under the Spotlight – an occasional interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions. You can catch up with previous posts here.

This month, our spotlight is being trained on Sophie Heywood (University of Reading) guest editor of the latest French History Virtual Special Issue on the subject of ‘popular piety and the state in modern France’. You can access the VSI here.

Woman with short blonde hair wearing a navy blue t-shirt looking directly at the camera and smiling.

In a nutshell, what is your research about?

I’m fascinated by the books and other media used to raise and educate children. How do societies seek to shape the next generation? Who gets to tell these stories and why? What happens when such materials have been imported from different languages and cultures? My first book explored the importance of children to the nineteenth-century Catholic revival, through a study of the political and religious engagement of the iconic children’s author the Comtesse de Ségur (Catholicism and children’s literature in France: the comtesse de Ségur (1799-1874)Manchester University Press, 2011). My new book will be on the Cold War, globalisation, and the French children’s publishing industry. France is the only country in the West to have a censorship law regulating books and magazines for children. Open any book aimed at young readers published in France, and you should find in its front matter the declaration that it conforms to the Law No 49-956 of 16 July 1949 on publications for children. Given my interests I just had to investigate the story behind this.

What was it that first got you interested in researching French history?

I feel that I am very privileged in this respect, as it runs in the family. Both of my parents are French historians (specifically the history of childhood in France in the case of my father, while my mother wrote her thesis on education reform in 1848). I had genuinely meant to do something different, but I ended up doing a degree in French and History! I had the chance to study under the inspirational Jim McMillan at Edinburgh, and he sparked my interest in the religious and political history of modern France… but focusing on childhood of course. Les chiens ne font pas les chats, as the French say.

In the length of a Tweet, what is your Virtual Special Issue about?

As this is an academic blog for the venerable Oxford University Press I have refrained from using emojis (also, other social media platforms are available…).

This special issue on the history of popular piety in modern France and its colonies explores the continued political potency of religion in the secularizing age; both as a tool for mobilisation of the masses but also resistance to state power.

What are the main insights you hope people will take away from the VSI?

The historiography of modern France experienced a ‘religious turn’ in the first decade of the twenty-first century, as scholars began to challenge the longstanding, Marxist-inspired notion that the importance of religions was waning in the modern, secular age. I think what this collection of articles demonstrates is just how important the move to turn religion into an ‘opinion’ by the revolutionaries was for the political culture of modern, democratic France. The articles really draw out the changing power relations between believers, the state and organised religions that came about as a result of the enlightenment and revolutionary era. The Catholic religion is being integrated into studies of identity politics in France, and I think it really helps us in the project of rethinking the history of religion in modern France.

What new thing(s) did you learn in the course of putting together the VSI?

I discovered the importance of letters from heaven, written by divine hand and that fall to earth often to be discovered by young children who can miraculously read or speak their contents. Medieval in origin, their proliferation in the 19thcentury across Catholic Europe has much to tell us about the changing place of popular devotional practices in the modern Church, and the sacred nature of writing and print culture.

What advice would you give to other people contemplating guest editing a VSI?

I would strongly encourage other people to consider putting together a virtual special issue. It is an intellectually stimulating exercise, and the team at French History has been great to work with.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

Most rewarding is the great freedom I have as an academic to choose the topics I think it is important to teach and research, and to then share my findings with students and the wider academic community. Most frustrating is the sense of precarity. Modern Languages are an endangered subject in the UK, and we spend so much of our time just fighting to survive.  

What one change would you most like to see in Academia in the next five years?

Education provision in the UK has been profoundly undermined by austerity measures. The education – and by extension mental health and future prospects – of the young must be prioritised urgently. Universities have been working to address educational inequalities – and I’m proud of my own institution Reading’s work on diversity and supporting students with mental health issues – however, so many of the problems are systemic and require much more than local fixes.

What are you working on now/next?

I’m trying hard not to get distracted from finishing my book manuscript, entitled Children’s Publishing in Cold War France: Hachette in the age of Surveillance and Control, which is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic, in their Perspectives in Children’s literature series.

Quick fire questions:

Which French place/space would you most like to be able to go to right now?

The beautiful city of Tours in the Loire Valley, to visit the colleagues who I worked with on a research fellowship there.

Favourite archive or library?

The IMEC publishing archive in Caen. It is in a converted Abbey, so it is an incredibly atmospheric space for studying, plus the onsite canteen food is delicious.  

Favourite century?

Twentieth- probably because I’m working on it at the moment!

Éclair or saucisson?

I have a sweet tooth, so éclair. 


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